Civil rights marchers rest along the route from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in March 1965. Photo by Peter Pettus. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By Matt Silver
In March 1965, beaten and bloodied, civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens persisted in marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. Even after being turned away not once, but twice—first by physical force, then by the legal force of a federal injunction.
Officially, the purpose of the Selma to Montgomery marches was to demonstrate the commitment of Black leaders and citizens to, once and for all, realizing the equal voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment and reinforced by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just months earlier.
The latter legislation, transformative and comprehensive though it was in many ways, still made it too easy for states in the Jim Crow South to discriminate against Black voters at the ballot box. And there were few places in the South where Jim Crow’s grip was stronger in the spring of 1965 than in Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the county seat and Black Alabamans accounted for over half of the county’s population but less than two-percent of its registered voters.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Selma two months earlier, in January 1965, to throw his support behind the cause of registering Black voters, he led peaceful demonstrations and wound up arrested and jailed, along with thousands of others who’d joined him.
“This is Selma, Alabama,” King told the New York Times. “There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.”
Undeterred, and further incited by the murder of local civil rights activist and Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, civil rights leaders resolved to march on Montgomery from Selma. On their first attempt – on March 7, 1965 – some 600 marchers led by John Lewis, who’d go on to represent Georgia in Congress for over 30 years, were confronted by Alabama state troopers who were under orders from segregationist Governor George Wallace to use “whatever measures necessary to prevent a march.”
The San Diego Union Tribune’s coverage of what came to be called “Bloody Sunday.” March 7, 1965.
Those measures included tear-gas, billy clubs, whips, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, and they were used. Lewis sustained a skull fracture, and 57 others were treated for injuries at a local hospital. But their injuries were not for naught; the entire grisly episode had been recorded by TV cameras. The footage made national news broadcasts, and set off a national uproar over what quickly came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Two days later, Martin Luther King led an even greater mass of humanity across the Edmund Pettus bridge. The crowd was nearly 1,500 strong – some estimates put the number closer to 2,500 – comprising ordinary Americans who’d been horrified by what they’d seen of Bloody Sunday and religious leaders of differing faiths and denominations from across the country whom King had personally asked to join him in Selma.
Political and legal machinations intervened, however.
A federal judge issued a temporary injunction on marching, citing concerns over “peace and tranquility.” No doubt, this would’ve tripped MLK’s BS detector, but context required him to consider the bigger picture. He’d never violated a federal court order and that moment wouldn’t have been the most prudent time for him to start.
Federal congressional support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which would pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law less than five months later – was then tenuous and something as undiplomatic as blowing off a federal injunction could’ve put the entire endeavor in jeopardy. And, after all, passing that national voting rights legislation – beefing up the voting rights enforcement apparatus and making both the 15th Amendment and the pertinent portions of the Civil Rights Act less susceptible to perversion and manipulation by segregationists – would’ve been the primary goal of the Selma campaign in the first place.
Unbeknownst to those who’d intended to march to Birmingham with Dr. King that day, he’d had a conversation with President Johnson and the Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach the night before, reaching a compromise. The march would go on, but both sides agreed that MLK would turn the protesters around once they’d crossed over to the other side of the Pettus Bridge, where, critically, jurisdiction shifted from Selma City authorities (more permissive of civil rights marches) to Dallas County authorities (notoriously impermissive and led by the infamous sheriff Jim Clark, who was no friend of the civil rights movement, to put it most charitably.)
And that’s exactly what happened.
Once the King-led crowd had spanned the Alabama River and Sheriff Clark’s troops could be seen massed at the base of the bridge, King and other clergy are said to have kneeled down, led the group in a short prayer, turned around and led the marchers by the thousands back to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma.
That’s how the March 9, 1965 march came to be known, somewhat derisively, as “Turnaround Tuesday.” It stands to reason that this is in part because many–if not all–of the marchers would not have been privy to the political circumstances that informed King’s decision, seeing it not as a decision to save a much larger goal then very much at stake but, instead, as acquiescence.
But things didn’t end there.
After two weeks of being forcefully denied, the same federal judge who’d erected the legal roadblock on “Turnaround Tuesday” this time issued an injunction preventing Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark’s local law enforcement from interfering with marchers.
Martin Luther King, Jr.— escorted by the FBI and an Alabama National Guard federally deputized by President Lyndon Johnson—led thousands protesting nonviolently for full Black voting rights in the South on a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama—the seat of Dallas County, a notorious Jim Crow stronghold—to the steps of the state capital in Montgomery.
Marching from seven to 17 miles per day, they camped in supporters’ yards along the way and were entertained at night by the likes of Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.
When they reached the steps of the state Capitol in Montgomery, Dr. King addressed a crowd that had grown to nearly 25,000.
“There never was a moment in American history,” King said, “more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”
“The end we seek,” he continued, “is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”
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